2012 was the year of online learning, at least as far as colleges and universities were concerned. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), major developments in adaptive learning technologies, significant advances in learning analytics and the expansion of the private sector into online learning all drew significant attention. Feature articles in the New York Times, Forbes and The Atlantic, all suggested that MOOCs and analytics would drive massive change in the work of colleges and universities. Some even suggested that smaller institutions would close as more and more students moved to MOOCs as a way of securing their education, especially given that MOOCs could now lead to college and university credit.
But colleges and universities are resilient, nimble and adaptive. They have withstood the ebb’s and flow of public policy shifts and can absorb fiscal body blows and challenges to their mandates. While many have embraced technology-enhanced learning in response to student and faculty demand, they have not changed the fundamental elements of their core business.
Classroom-based learning, credit granted for course completions rather than competency, credit in standard lengths (usually three or six), and faculty on a fixed schedule remain the core of the teaching activity of institutions. In part, this is driven by the realities of funding models, collective agreements and faculty expectations. But it is also driven by the fact that most students still expect classroom teaching to be the norm. The fanciful notion that the incoming student body are “digital natives” who prefer to learn on their own in front of a screen is just that – fanciful.
Online Learning’s Breakthrough Challenges
Yet, online learning is occupying a new position in the strategic thinking of Ontario colleges and universities. In the mandate review documents submitted by all institutions in 2012, 18 of 21 universities and 21 of 24 colleges saw online learning as key to their strategic future. This is a significant development – online learning has moved from, “and we also offer some online courses,” to being at the heart of the emerging identity of Ontario’s institutions.
In part, this is a response to demand. Demand for online learning is growing faster than demand for more conventional forms of instruction, both in Canada and around the world. But it is also a response to the war for academic talent, financial pressure and emerging pedagogy.
There are five major challenges that colleges and universities will need to overcome to position online learning as a core activity of the institution. These are:
- Faculty Adoption
- Ensuring a Quality Learning Experience
- Developing a New Pedagogy
- Rethinking Assessment
- Rethinking Credit
Let us look at each of these challenges in turn.
In 2010 Ontario had some 18,000 online courses and around 1,000 online programs available from colleges and universities. These figures represent just 14% of college programs, 6% of undergraduate and 4% of graduate programs; there is significant room for growth and expansion.
One challenge is that faculty are hired to teach in classrooms, labs or workshops. Online learning is contractually seen as an “add on” for colleges and universities, not core. Most of the initial spur to develop and grow courses and programs has been fuelled by early adopters amongst the faculty.
To get to a position where 50% of programs from colleges and universities are available online by 2020 will require over half of the faculty to be genuinely committed and engaged in the design, development, deployment and delivery of courses and programs online. This is a major cultural and contractual change which is not yet underway in most institutions.
It is also something that will be resisted by faculty for three reasons.
The first is a genuine concern that pursuing online learning will lead to the need for fewer full time faculty and an increasing use of sessional and part time academic staff who can be anywhere in the world.
The second is a concern that the time allowed and paid for the design and development of online courses is insufficient, given their knowledge and skills. While there are a great many excellent professional development opportunities aimed at helping faculty and others develop first rate online courses and programs, most faculty are inexperienced at this work and feel hesitant.
The third reason is that many of their own experiences of online learning have not been satisfactory.
Each year the Sloan Consortium in the US, in partnership with Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the College Board, survey US colleges and universities and analyze the state of play of online learning in the US. In their most recent report they look systematically at the concerns of faculty. The context here is that just 30% of faculty see online learning as a legitimate approach to instruction, while 13% do not (the vast majority are neutral). Even among those institutions with full online programs less than a majority (43.9% in 2011 and 38.4% in 2012) of chief academic officers say their faculty fully accept online education. The perceived level of acceptance has actually decreased over the past year at all types of institutions.
The key concerns are with workload (most faculty who teach online say that it takes more time to do so than conventional instruction); quality, lack of preparedness of students for the self-management requirements for online learning; technical challenges and the reliability of the systems in use; and the lack of student engagement.
Getting more faculty to do more, especially when budgets are under pressure, and to work in very new and different ways will be a challenge.
Ensuring a Quality Learning Experience
Not all online learning experiences are good experiences, though learner satisfaction and adoption of online learning is increasing.
The key issues here fall into three categories: (a) technology issues; (b) issues with instruction’ and (c) customer service.
The technology issue is simple. Most systems are reliable for some of the time but not all of the time and students are frustrated when they are not reliable. A related issue is that not all of the functionalities of learning management systems in use work on all devices – smartphones and tablets in particular. As institutions move to a policy of “bring your own device,” compatibility issues will likely grow, made worse by the speed at which new technologies and new versions of software are appearing. Help desk support is vital to students, many of whom are not as technologically “savvy” as anticipated. This infrastructure challenge carries cost implications – now difficult -for many colleges and universities to address.
The second area of concern is the potential passivity of the online learning experience . Online learning can be very dynamic, as many students have found. However, many online courses are instructor-centric and material-driven rather than engaging. In particular, the lack of use of simulation, “gamification,” projects, peer networks, and crowdsourcing of ideas is a growing issue for students.
The third area is service. A student who sends an assignment for marking expects feedback and grading quickly; they also expect rapid response to posted questions, queries, challenges or requests. They do not always find the response time satisfactory. The lack of service standards is emerging as a serious concern for students, since it directly impacts their learning.
One additional area of concern for academic leaders is their belief that online learning may not be appropriate for all students. In 2007 just over 80 percent of those responding to the Sloan study cited the fact that, “students need more discipline to succeed in online courses,” as an important or a very important barrier to the widespread adoption of online education. Experience with online education has only strengthened this view – today, the percentage of academic leaders cite the same barrier has increased to 88.8 percent.
Developing a New Pedagogy
The potential of available technology to change who, what and how we teach is considerable. Yet most online courses barely use technology either for learning or analytics.
One reason for this is the widespread adoption of learning management systems which have been used to create both a common platform across institutions, but also to constrain the imagination of the designers and developers of courses. A second reason is the lack of time given for design and development and the reliance on individual faculty members rather than a development team which also includes instructional designers, librarians, editors and technology expertise. The combination of these factors has led to online courses often being “old wine in new bottles,” though there are remarkable exceptions to this generalization.
Fully leveraging the potential of online learning and available technologies will require a significant investment in professional development, leveraging across a jurisdiction the available instructional design expertise, and breaking the assumption that each faculty member is solely responsible for “their” course.
A pedagogy which focused on learning as an experience, student engagement, competency and mastery, as well as real peer-to-peer interaction requires considerably more time than is currently allocated for the design and development of a new course.
The implicit challenge here is to change how we understand the relationship between knowledge, learners, instructors and others within the institution.
Traditional university assessment is periodic. A midterm assignment and end of term assignment with quizzes along the way is a common model. New forms of analytics permit assessment of learning to be continuous.
The seven underpinning propositions of Assessment 2020: Seven Propositions for Assessment Reform in Higher Education are especially relevant to the future of online learning. They include positioning assessment as a central feature of teaching and learning; ensuring that students develop the capacity to self-assess and appropriately assess others; and focusing assessment on educational purposes (assessment for and as learning versus assessment of learning for accountability purposes).
Imagine analytics and assessment in the following way:
- Assessment and learning analytics focus students on the processes for and outcomes of learning and are themselves learning activities.
- Informative and supportive feedback enables a positive attitude toward learning; students should receive specific information about how to improve, which is provided through an “always on” learning analytics engine, such as that used by the Khan Academy.
- Students progressively take responsibility; students develop the ability to judge their own and others' work; and there is an ongoing dialogue about the assessment and learning analytics processes among faculty and students.
- Such practices are carefully structured early in a course so that students can transition successfully, and the practices are responsive to students' diverse expectations and experiences.
- Assessment and learning analytics are included in the earliest stages of curriculum and course development and are organized holistically across subjects and programs so that a team within a college or university can use analytics dashboards to understand how key learning objectives are being achieved (or not) amongst their student body.
- Institutions and staff require and are given learning opportunities to develop skills, processes and structures for good assessment and good learning analytics practice.
What is more, learning analytics and continuous assessment can lead to improved design of courses and, using adaptive technologies, do so instantly, with course resources being adjusted as it becomes clear what the student has and has not learned.
The last challenge reflects developments that are already occurring at the Western Governors University, Kentucky Community Technical & College System (KCTCS) and elsewhere. They are thinking differently about credit recognition. Rather than assuming that all learning is based around a 15 to 18-week course length and comes in units of three credits (or multiples thereof), they have switched to competency-based credit recognition and to credit being awarded for competencies of varying credit weights, from .25 to 3 in increments of .25 or .33. This has enabled KCTCS to offer online learning “on demand” and courses of two to three weeks duration.
Others, like Thompson Rivers University, have adopted an approach to work-based learning partnerships akin to that found at Middlesex University in the UK, where credit is earned through the normal education, training and development activities of corporations, thus permitting credit transfer to programs from prior learning to be formally part of normal work activities. New approaches to prior learning assessment are also being explored.
Credit transfer is a critical component of the flexibility the student body now seeks and is connected to online learning by the simple fact that students can take courses, such as MOOCs from anywhere in the world. MOOCs are free to study, but there are a variety of institutions which, for a modest fee, will offer a credit-based assessment for a transferable credit.
Game Changing Times
These five challenges are not barriers to the future of online learning – they are simply issues that need to be tackled intelligently and soon if online learning is to become a critical component of college and university strategies for their future. While some of these issues are more complex than others, they are what is known as “nested” problems: if you look at one, the other issues all come into play.
What is needed is a focused approach to the governance of this different future. For online learning to be a strategic focus for the future, all need to be engaged in the conversation about what this looks like. To get past the hype and to the action, colleges and universities will need to be focused, realistic and challenging about how to turn good intentions into sound practice.